This year marks the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education’s (FARE) tenth Annual Alcohol Poll. Over the past decade, the Poll has examined Australians’ attitudes towards alcohol, their consumption behaviours, awareness and experiences of alcohol harm, and perspectives on alcohol policies.
Ten consecutive years of polling, carried out by YouGov Galaxy, has enabled FARE to monitor patterns and trends in these areas as well as emerging alcohol policy issues. So, what does this polling tell us about Australia’s relationship with alcohol? Has it changed much over the last ten years?
FARE’s polling shows that the majority of Australians continue to see alcohol as an issue of concern. While responses to core questions have varied over the years, over the last decade, between two thirds and three quarters of those surveyed reported that Australia has a problem with alcohol, and more than three quarters reported that more needs to be done to reduce alcohol harm. Australians’ views on the latter have remained relatively consistent over the past decade.
Perceptions of the alcohol industry have not improved. The majority of Australians (70%) believe that political parties should not be able to receive alcohol industry donations, 70% believe that the alcohol industry has a conflict of interest if it is involved in developing government or public policy on alcohol control, and only 16% would trust alcohol-related advice and information provided by the alcohol industry.
In terms of drinking habits, a majority of Australians drink alcohol (82%) and almost half of drinkers (47%) report drinking alcohol to get drunk. The proportion of Australian drinkers reporting drinking alcohol to get drunk has increased by almost one third between 2015 and 2019. The 2019 Poll also found that a third of Australian drinkers (33%) have ordered alcohol online for home delivery in the past 12 months, most commonly from bottle shops (13%), on-demand providers that deliver alcohol in an hour or two (11%), and online wine distributors (10%). These findings are concerning given the failure of regulatory frameworks to keep pace with this rapidly evolving market.
Despite the existence of the Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol (the Guidelines), Australians remain confused about low- and high-risk drinking. The 2019 Poll found that most Australian drinkers (87%) consider themselves a ‘responsible drinker’. Yet, 78% of Australian drinkers who drink to get drunk and 64% who do so at least twice a week, also consider themselves a ‘responsible drinker’. Clearly, the term ‘responsible drinker’ means different things to different people.
The 2019 Poll also found that Australians are no more aware of the Guidelines and their content than they were almost a decade ago. Just over half (57%) report being aware of the Guidelines, with only one in five (18%) aware of the actual content. Despite some fluctuations, these findings have remained relatively consistent since 2011. There is no doubt that the lack of government investment aimed at raising awareness of the Guidelines has contributed to these findings; problematic as their effectiveness is clearly limited if no one knows anything about them.
Australians’ knowledge of alcohol’s long-term harms continues to be low. Fewer than half of Australians are aware of the link between alcohol use and stroke (41%), mouth and throat cancer (29%) and breast cancer (16%). These figures have been consistently low since this question was first asked in 2011.
However, Australians clearly want to know more about these harms. Four in five believe people have a right to know about a wide range of alcohol-related health harms, and a majority (76%) support health warning labels on alcohol products.
The 2019 Poll continues to demonstrate alcohol’s extensive and far-reaching impacts. More than one third of Australians (38%) have been affected by alcohol-related violence, including 18% who have been direct victims. Almost a quarter (23%) of parents or guardians with a child under 18 report that their child had been harmed or put at risk of harm because of someone else’s drinking.
The 2019 Poll continues to show strong support for evidence-based alcohol-related policies. The vast majority of Australians (85%) believe that pubs, clubs and bars should close at 3am or earlier, a majority (80%) think there are places where outdoor alcohol advertising should be banned, and half of Australians (50%) support increasing the tax on alcohol to pay for health, education, and treatment of alcohol-related problem.
Ten years of polling clearly demonstrates that addressing alcohol harm in Australia is just as relevant today as it was a decade ago. Too many drinkers are drinking to get drunk; confusion remains about low- and high-risk drinking; alcohol harm continues to affect too many adults and children; and Australians’ knowledge of alcohol’s long-term harms continues to be woefully inadequate.
Of course, it hasn’t all been doom and gloom. A number of governments have shown strong leadership in addressing alcohol harm. The Northern Territory is currently implementing a comprehensive alcohol policy reform program and Queensland recently joined the Australian Capital Territory and Western Australia by announcing a ban of alcohol advertising on public transport. While these governments should be congratulated for implementing evidence-based policies, maintaining momentum and staying the course despite the best efforts of the alcohol industry, are key to achieving real change.
This task of reducing alcohol harm in Australia cannot be left to the alcohol industry. Constant rhetoric about ‘responsible drinking’ and ‘individual responsibility’ only serve one purpose – to increase industry profits – at the cost of deceiving Australians who drink. The perception that the majority of Australian drinkers drink ‘responsibly’ diverts attention away from the true extent of alcohol harm by positioning it as an issue that only affects a small minority of ‘problem drinkers’. This in turn assists the alcohol industry to deflect further regulation of alcohol.
As we approach the 2019 Federal Election, it is critical that alcohol policy is on the agenda of all political parties.
The time for action on alcohol is now. Strong leadership from the Commonwealth, state and territory governments, is required to avoid a repeat of this conversation in 10 years’ time.